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a Slave State of Missouri v. Celia: 1855

Celia Speaks, The Trial Begins, On To The Missouri Supreme Court, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: Celia, a Slave
Charge: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Isaac M. Boulware, John Jameson, and Nathan Chapman Kouns
Chief Prosecutor: Robert Prewitt
Judge: William Hall
Place: Calloway County, Missouri
Dates of Trial: October 9-10, 1855
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: This case graphically illustrates that enslaved women had no legal recourse when raped by their masters. Although the second article of Section 29 of the Missouri statutes of 1845 forbade anyone "to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled," Judge William Hall refused to instruct the jury that the enslaved Celia fell within the meaning of "any woman"—giving the jury no latitude to consider Celia's murder of her sexually abusive master a justifiable act of self-defense.

In 1850, the recently widowed Robert Newsom purchased the 14-year-old Celia, ostensibly to help his daughters with the housework. En route from Audrain County, the site of the transaction, to his own home in neighboring Calloway County, Missouri, Newsom raped the young girl. Back at his farm, Newsom ensconced her in a small cabin 150 feet from his home. Between 1850 and 1855, Celia bore two of Newsom's children, both of whom became her master's property. She also began a relationship with a fellow slave named George. When she became pregnant in 1855, she was unsure which of the men was the father. At that point, George told Celia that "he would have nothing more to do with her if she did not quit the old man."

Celia first asked Newsom's daughters to intercede. She told Mary (19 years old, as was Celia in 1855) and Virginia (36 and returned to her father's home with her own three children) that her pregnancy was making her feel unwell and that she wished Robert Newsom to respect her condition and leave her alone. There is no indication that either Newsom daughter challenged her father.

Celia herself pleaded with Newsom on June 23, but he brushed aside her objections and said "he was coming to her cabin that night." That afternoon, Celia brought a heavy stick, "about as large as the upper part of a Windsor chair, but not so long," into her cabin. When Newsom arrived and refused to back off, she killed him with two blows to the head. She spent the night burning his corpse in her fireplace. As morning approached, she ground the smaller bones into pieces with a rock; the larger bones, she hid "under the hearth, and under the floor between a sleeper and the fireplace." Later that day, she gave Newsom's unwitting grandson, Virginia's son Coffee Waynescot, "two dozen walnuts [to] carry the ashes out." Coffee disposed of his grandfather's remains on the ground beside "a beat down like" path on the property.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882